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- January 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm #275173Catherine Campbell-NesbitParticipantMy ladies’ chorale is singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. On the third verse, I am aware that many people now change the words from ” die to make men free” to “live to make men free” although the original poem is “die”. I believe the Mormon Tabernacle choir was the first group to do this. Does anyone have an opinion about whether this should be done, is done regularly, and/or is appropriate?Thank you.Catherine Campbell NesbitScarborough SingersJanuary 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm #275185William McConnellParticipantCatherine,My understanding of the tradition is that “die to make men free” is used during a time when we are at war and “live to make men free” when we are not at war. Hope this helps.Bill McConnellmcconnellwt(a)roadrunner.comJanuary 11, 2011 at 5:06 pm #275194Thomas SheetsParticipantDear Ms. Nesbit:This piece is a favorite of the eminentchoral conductor Paul Salamunovich–he always uses “live to make men free”–regardless of the prevailing state ofinternational conflict.Best wishes for your performances.Cordially,Thomas Sheets, D.M.A.January 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm #275209Cory AlexanderParticipantSince you’re asking for opinions, mine is to sing “die.”1) “Die to make men free” is in the original poem as it appeared on the cover of “The Atlantic Monthly” in February of 1862. I tend to be a purist about such things.2) The simile doesn’t make much sense if you change it: “as [Christ] died to make men holy…” let us to do the opposite thing for a different reason?3) The poem is about war. No matter the reasons or the outcome, good, young, innocent people die in war. I prefer not to paint a happy little picture over the tragedy.January 12, 2011 at 2:10 am #275231John BiggsParticipantDefinitely NOT appropriate. Leave the poet alone. Do it as originally written.John BiggsJanuary 13, 2011 at 3:37 am #275323Peter FritzParticipantI always asked my choirs to perform it using the word “live”, but we always discussed the reasons for the change. The word “live” can mean many things. We were careful to understand that in this context, “live” does not mean “to survive” but “to pledge or commit one’s life to”; A serious lifetime commitment to defend truth and freedom. When I hear the hymn sung in the original I always hear echoes of Gen. George Patton who famously said “Nobody ever won a war by dieing for their country”. Just my humble take.Out of curiosity, in “Once to Every Man and Nation”, how do you handle “by the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track”?January 13, 2011 at 7:26 am #275336Jerome HobermanParticipantI’m wondering, reading these messages debating the proposed reversal from the author’s “die” to a literally whimsical “live,” how many of you would be as willing to change a composer’s choice of pitch or mode because you prefer some alternative of your own invention (or that of some celebrated predecessor or contemporary)? And, assuming that few of you would, what that implies about the relative importance of words and music in your musical world view?What I also begin to sense from this discussion is how different the choral world is from the instrumental one, at least in Western Europe and North America. In instrumental ensemble music, it has long been taken as given that our job is to be as true to the score as it is possible to be, without interposing our own egos (though we realize that complete suppression of our personalities is unlikely). A discussion similar to this one, say, about some “tradition” of rewriting pitches, rhythms or instrumentation, would, I imagine, be unthinkable on OrchestraList.Best regards,Jerome HobermanMusic Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & OrchestraPrincipal Conductor, Baguio Cathedral International Music Festival (Philippines)January 13, 2011 at 1:06 pm #275343Phil Spencer WhiteheadParticipantGreat thoughts from everyone. For a completely different point of view… I was astonished to learn that there was any controversy about this song at all. One lady who attended a concert of ours even refused to consider purchasing a CD when she saw that this song was one of the tracks! (regardless of whether we sang “live” or “die”) I was stunned at her response — the song carries such powerful meanings for me, and in beautifully crafted English.In my faith background, I was raised with the teaching that the warfare and weapons of Christians are completely spiritual in nature (e.g. love, forgiveness, reason) and not physical (e.g. swords, guns, coercion), that Christians indeed “die to themselves” and their selfish conduct, offering themselves daily as “living sacrifices” to “set men free” spiritually, and that yes, this purpose may even require their physical lives of them, walking in the very footsteps of Christ himself.Be as it may, this is the context within which I have always read Julia Ward Howe’s words, regardless of her own particular beliefs regarding the Civil War and God’s hand in it. So as I interpret the song from this viewpoint, it makes no difference whether I sing “live” or “die” since it pretty much means the same thing to me (and has nothing to do with whether the state is at war or not, or whether Christians should involve themselves in such actions).But realizing that not everyone shares my viewpoint, I can certainly understand if someone has attached emotions surrounding the loss of a loved one to this song, or are unable to reconcile it with their theology about earthly warfare, and must either change the words or not sing the song at all.~spenceJanuary 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm #275351Edward PalmerParticipantCatherine,are you aware that this topic was pursued quite thoroughly, recently? Check the archives of Forum; you might enjoy.EPJanuary 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm #275352Thomas Clark-JonesParticipantIn response to Mr. Hoberman’s comments, it is necessary to remember that this is a hymn. It’s not a piece of great art music in the same way that a Beethoven symphony or a Wagner opera is. In those cases, looking toward a performance accurate to the composer’s wishes is uppermost in a conductor’s mind. Hymns are living, breathing poetry that evolve over time. This is not just true of folk hymns, but of regularly composed hymns and texts by fine authors. Various religious groups tend to use similar, but not identical theologies in their practice, and changing a word or two to make the text more clearly reflect the point of view of the denomination using the text is not unusual. At times, great poetry has been massacred in the name of political correctness or religious doctrine. One only need look into any major denominational hymnal and see how many texts have the author’s name, a comma, and the abreviation, “alt.” (altered). The extent of the alterations may be from a word or two to complete reworking of texts. When the Presbyterian Hymnal, now used by the Presbyterian Church, USA first came out, many were upset that the great hymn, “O God Our Help In Ages Past” sung to the tune St. Anne seemed to be missing, only to find out, that for some reason that seemed logical at the time, the editors decided to change it to, “OUR God, Our Help in Ages Past”. Never did quite figure out why!! At the other end of the spectrum is “The Twenty-First Century Hymnal” of the United Church of Christ which elminiated all sexist language and in so doing rewrote many beloved texts to the point of no longer being able to recognize them! Thus, the discussion is not quite the same as changing the main theme of Beethoven’s Fifth … it is a matter of these works being ‘useful’ music and poetry that religious groups use and change to meet their theological and political needs. Is it the right thing to do? Good question. But perhaps germaine to this discussion … changing this word is not going to destroy the music or the text any more than is done is standard practice across the Christian world.January 13, 2011 at 5:58 pm #275365John HowellParticipantJerome: Yes, the choral world IS very different. As soon as you start dealing with words you are dealing with emotions, with beliefs and belief systems, and with things with which an individual might disagree. Actors do the same thing, but are taught that the actor is not the character and should be able to portray any character and that character’s belief system without necessarily agreeing with it. Singers too often are not, and some feel very strongly that they cannot sing texts in which they don’t believe. They have not learned the detachment that a story-teller must have.But I would suggest that “a discussion similar to this one, say, about some ‘tradition’ of rewriting pitches, rhythms or instrumentation, would, I imagine, be unthinkable on OrchestraList” might be a little too strong a statement. In particular in relation to the symphonies of Schumann or the orchestrations of Mussorgsky. And in fact those HAVE been discussed on OrchestraList. As has, more recently, the “morality” of making cuts in a work. And of course the whole world of jazz is based on treating “the score” as only the starting point for individual creativity, and that is understood by everyone who works in the genre, INCLUDING the composers!All the best,JohnJanuary 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm #275404Catherine Campbell-NesbitParticipantDear All,I am astonished and thrilled at all the responses I have received to my somewhat simple question and it makes me love and appreciate Choral Net tremendously. I feel this exchange is the finest classroom available to me and I just want to thank everyone for their comments. I have shared them all with my chorale and will let them decide which wording best suits. At the moment, the chorale is on the side of leaving the wording as Julie Ward Howe wrote it but I think there are beautiful arguments on both sides.You are all brilliant!Thank you,CatherineJanuary 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm #275442Ryan KellyParticipantTrying not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t find the question altogether difficult to answer.If this were a setting of Edgar Allen Poe or Robert Frost, this question wouldn’t be debated….no one would change those authors’ texts. The question, it seems rests partly in the concept of “greatness.” Is the Howe text Poe, Frost, or Tennyson? No. However, I would not treat it so simply as Thomas mentioned that hymns are treated in hymnals; it is not devoid of greatness in its genre of usage (which I would argue is not religious despite its language) being a battle song, patriotic anthem, etc.If the Battle Hymn is being performed to communicate some type of reference to history (ala 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War), or an American heritage program, or a memorial service, or a patriotic concert celelbrating American music, then it should be performed as written, so that in the concert context it represents what it was originally written and understood by the public to representThe only argument that can really stand for changing “die” to “live” is one based on activism, whether today or in the 1950’s. And that is not a bad argument, if it is intended to make an activist/anti-war statement. But, I have difficulty with masking activism with revisionism. Don’t program Battle Hymn, change the words, and put it on a concert titled “History of American Music.” If you don’t like the text, don’t perform the song in that context–OR, be up front about the activism and say, “We’re not passing off something revised as history–we just don’t like it, so this is what we’ve changed it to.” Directors do this all the time with Stephen Foster pieces.Finally with respect to Catherine, it is my personal opinion that this is not what should be left up for a class of students to decide. This is yet another opportunity for a wonderful teaching moment–after reviewing the reasons for making a decision, telling them why the decision was made. Sudents deciding by saying, “I think the word ‘live’ communicates such a beautiful message,” when in reality the message of confused poetry and revisionist historicism is not beautiful at all, is not what I want to promote–unless the class is making an intentional anti-war activist statement–and if that is the case, there are tons of other pieces that can do this more effectively.January 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm #275444Daniel WagnerParticipantFriends …regarding “live” or “die” – in earlier years I very glibly changed “die” to “live”. And one can make the case that even in battle we all share the desire that that our members of the military would LIVE… that their purpose is never to DIE, though that is too often the sad outcome. Over time, I’ve become a bit more careful to honor poetry in its original version, and play a tiny part in stretching people toward understanding context and theology (as a church musician) before they instantly react based on current cultural preferences.A few years ago I had an encounter that made me think about this text. I was surprised when at a past church position I had changed the word to “live”, and a choir member came to me and said that as a veteran he is offended when “die” is sanitized to “live”. He feels it dishonors those who have fallen in the pursuit of freedom. Whether we think he’s right or justified, I did give his opinion more weight than I do the current cultural taste in words.Regarding the theology of the text, I think that discussion is pertinent to understanding, whether a conductor works in a religious setting or not, or whether s/he is personally religious or not. One might not be Roman Catholic, but should understand Marian devotion when conducting an Ave Maria. One may not be Jewish, but would do well to know something about the history and religion of Judaism in preparing “Bashana Haba-a”.So I am prompted to follow up on Phil Spencer Whitehead’s post. I agree with Phil that it to interpret many Christian texts it is important to understand the concept of “spiritual warfare” (a thoroughly non-pc term!) This is based in part on the biblical passage “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”. http://bible.cc/ephesians/6-12.htmSo it is important to know that for many Christian texts, before we reject the military metaphor out of hand, we must at least realize that in many cases the writer fully understood that the “battle” is NOT against people around us. So what appears to be militaristic is in fact NOT, in the way we use the word.That said, I do not read “Battle Hymn” as a “spiritual warfare” text alone. It is more difficult than that, at least in terms of our current cultural taste. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_RepublicIt seems to me that she is making a vivid theological case for a “just war”. Further, she is saying that in the case of the Civil War, the cause of the Union is God’s cause, because its goal is to defeat injustice and bring freedom. She clearly is teaching that to fight (and perhaps die) to free others is to be an instrument of God’s judgment against injustice, and ultimately an instrument of bringing God’s redemption and the reign of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace on earth. These warriors are promised (in her text) God’s grace as they fight against the oppressor.So I would have to say that “Battle Hymn” *is* in fact a militaristic text, if we must label it. One could *develop* it into a metaphor that inspires us to work, a fight (strive) peacefully for justice and right. But to deal with it honestly, we cannot avoid its clear message about “just war” full of very specific Christian theological images. For all these reasons, some might find it more difficult to enter into this text as we might with a Brahms part song or a “Make a Joyful Noise” setting.I am becoming more and more willing to accept texts like “Battle Hymn” for exactly what they are, and to lean into them despite – or perhaps because of – the internal tension they might stir up. I suppose another possibility is to simply avoid getting into the depth of the text and letting the chips fall where they might. That might be the best route in a school situation, but I think I’d rather honor it in context, and to move students toward a thoughtful understanding of what this text meant in its time, and what it teaches us today.Dan Wagnerandante147- gmailJanuary 14, 2011 at 10:22 pm #275498Bill NiedererParticipantThis is a very interesting discussion which shows how much deep thought often goes into our performance of literature. I have done the “Battle Hymn” for 20 years, each year at a public high school graduation (two different schools in different states). When I taught in Iowa, the tradition was for the All-State Choir to perform it using the word “live,” and so we did the same at the high school where I taught. I believe that All-State tradition continues in Iowa.The reasoning of the text change was that the singers were not the ones going off to fight in the Civil War, but instead were rhetorically pledging their lives to help others to be free. I have had Mennonite/pacifist students at my current public high school refuse to sing the “Battle Hymn” due to its militaristic text, and that was fine. We had a good discussion about why the student felt it was not appropriate, and went on our way.In class, we always discuss the text and why we/I choose to change the word from “die” to “live,” and that’s a good teachable moment, although students are certainly free to express their own opinions about it. It’s never been a big deal to the students. They love singing the piece on its musical merits, not the text. At this point, our community enjoys hearing the “Battle Hymn,” but at some point it wouldn’t surprise me to be told not to sing it at a public high school graduation due to the sacred references in the text.If we are going to be purists about maintaining the text in the “Battle Hymn,” then I suppose no church musician on that side of the argument will ever change “Him” or any reference to a male God to a more gender-neutral reference…. but that’s a different discussion, I suppose. 🙂Again, great discussion – thanks for everyone’s thought-provoking words.
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